Children raising their hands in a classroom

Tanya Paes, PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, shares her findings on creative play and the development of self-regulation and language skills for children with English as an additional language (EAL).

Creativity starts with child’s play

Creativity is a broad concept that includes imagination and involves how fast and broadly we can think of innovative ideas that would also be of interest to other people (Paes & Eberhart, 2019). As a skill, it’s often developed when we engage in play activities. 

Pretend play can be defined as an activity that involves an individual projecting a mental representation onto reality (Lillard at al., 2013).

When children engage in play activities, it provides them with opportunities to examine a scenario from multiple perspectives and think of different ways to solve a problem. During this time, there’s no limit to their imagination.

In addition, when children partake in pretend play with their peers, acting out roles and characters in a scenario they have created, they often have an opportunity to set joint goals (Mussen, Carmichael, & Hetherington, 1983). 

Play and children’s creative thinking abilities

The cognitive and emotional skills used in pretend play and creativity are therefore comparable (Russ, 2016). Pretend play provides children with a chance to develop their creative thinking abilities as they are able to use their object substitution skills to represent other objects, create their own play worlds, and enact different themes, either by themselves or with others.

Children have creative control of the play worlds they create, so the conditions and rules of the activity are fluid. Consequently, they have to adapt to the changing scenario they’ve created, thereby using their creative thinking skills (Samuelsson & Johansson, 2006). 

Moore and Russ (2008) investigated the effects of a pretend play intervention on the play, emotional and creative development of six- to eight-year-olds. The pretend play intervention involved the children re-enacting four stories that had high story organisation and fantasy content, as well as making up one story of their own. 

Evidencing the impact of creative play on learning

The results of the study by Moore and Russ highlighted that children who re-enacted the stories and made up their own story improved their affect expression (emotional process) scores. These findings suggest that engagement in a systematic intervention can allow for the development of children’s creativity skills. 

In keeping with this, my PhD project used an experimental design to look at how effective a pretend play intervention was on the development of self-regulation and language skills of four- and five-year-olds with English as an additional language (EAL). 

The role of creative play for children with EAL needs

Past studies have shown a a link between pretend play and children’s self-regulation or language skills (Bohlmann, Maier, & Palacios, 2015; Cole et al., 2010).  But as far as I was aware, there had not been an interventional study that examined the relationship between creative play and children’s self-regulation, language and pre-literacy skills in tandem.

What’s more, there are limited studies on pretend play involving children from diverse backgrounds.  Consequently, the specific inclusion of children with EAL was critical, as they are subject to multiple simultaneous stressors including learning a new language and navigating the school system (Lillard et al., 2013). 

My project addressed empirical gaps in the play literature by using a methodologically robust approach that examined whether age, gender, and EAL status are important factors in self-regulation and language development.

I recruited 151 four- and five-year-olds, from diverse ethnic backgrounds, living in deprived neighbourhoods in a city in the east of England. I randomised the children into two groups: 

(a) pretend play; and 

(b) art activities. 

A third group of children was also included in the study who were exposed to the typical curriculum without interruption. 

The design of the pretend play intervention was based on storybook reading with an adult and subsequent role-playing with props related to the story, which has been used in other studies to improve children’s language skills (Pentimonti & Justice, 2010). The children received 16 sessions of the intervention that lasted for 30 minutes, in groups of five to six children.

Teacher reading to a child
Studies have suggested that reading in the company of an adult provides children with opportunities to reflect on aspects of the texts including the use of language and conventions. Reading with an adult can also serve as an important reading lesson that allows for the development of early-literacy skills (Whitehead, 1999). 
Child trying on a hat
According to Pentimonti and Justice (2010), engaging in role-playing activities following shared story reading provides children with further opportunities to develop their self-regulation and language skills, as they are able to reinforce their understanding of the concepts by applying their learning to different contexts.
Children pretending to be a shopkeeper and customer
The inclusion of a role-playing component also allows children to use their creativity skills, and negotiate their differences and desires, thereby promoting the development of their self-regulation skills (Savina, 2014).

Rhyming, initial sound off and vocabulary instruction

During the 10 minute storybook reading component, I provided phonological awareness and vocabulary instruction for six target words (Paes & Ellefson, 2018). The children received explicit instruction in two areas of phonological awareness – rhyme and initial sound off. These two areas were chosen as they were beneficial for children’s language skills in a study by Ziolkowski and Goldstein (2008). 

In addition to phonological awareness, the children also received explicit vocabulary instruction, as Collins (2010) suggests this is one of the strongest predictors of children’s educational success. Children develop their vocabulary at an extremely rapid rate between the ages of three and five.

Addressing diversity in research

Vocabulary instruction is particularly important when working with children from diverse backgrounds and from low-income households. McLeod et al. (2017) noted that vulnerable children who begin primary school with vocabulary skills lower than their peers are likely to be at risk of reading problems. Consequently, interventions are vital to enhance the vocabulary skills of vulnerable children to reduce the attainment gap in pre-school and kindergarten. 

The manner of vocabulary instruction in my study was similar to that included in the studies by Collins and Coyne et al. (2004) that consisted of providing the children with a simple, general definition for each of the words, and presenting a synonym that is used within the context of the story.

The second component of each pretend play session included a creative aspect as the children were provided with an opportunity to role-play. During this 10 minute period, the children were provided with props that were related to the storybook in the first component. The children could engage with the objects in different contexts that have been shown to have a positive effect on their language and literacy skills. 

The third and final component of the pretend play intervention was the review of the session (Schunk, 1999). During this 10 minute period, I reviewed the phonological awareness and the vocabulary for the target words by asking the children open-ended questions (Pullen & Justice, 2003). I also provided corrective feedback to further develop the children’s learning (Carroll & Snowling, 2004). 

Setting up a control group

The children in the art activities group were exposed to a similar structure as those in the pretend play intervention group.  However instead of participating in the role-playing components following the shared storybook reading section, they were given 10 minutes to engage in art activities that were unrelated to the story. This 10 minute art activities period was followed by the 10 minute review component that was similar in structure to what the children in the pretend play group experienced. 

Throughout the intervention, I monitored the elements of the activity that were beyond the children’s learning capacity at the first instance, thereby allowing the child to focus on the aspects of the task that were within his or her capability (Wood et al., 1976). I implemented high and low support strategies – co-participating, reducing choices, eliciting, generalising, reasoning, and predicting – that corresponded to the needs of the children (Pentimonti & Justice, 2010). 

As the children developed their skills and become more independent, I gradually withdrew the support provided. This withdrawal is also supported by Han et al. (2010) who recommend that the role of adults in children’s play activities should be dynamic as it boosts children’s literacy opportunities. Several measures were used pre- and post-intervention to evaluate children’s self-regulation, language, and pre-literacy skills. 

The findings: role of pretend play

My findings show that children in the pretend play group had significantly greater improvement in their phonological awareness skills post-intervention compared to children who were exposed to the typical curriculum. 

The project addressed the theories surrounding the attainment gap for children from vulnerable backgrounds. Although all the children improved on their post-test scores, native English speakers outperformed children with EAL on their post-intervention scores of expressive vocabulary (words that a person can express or produce by speaking or writing).

This work will contribute to a better understanding of using systematic interventions with a creative approach in educational settings without disrupting the normal curriculum.

Integrating pretend play

When examining the results of my study, it’s important to consider that there are limited studies in this area and the evidence on play-based learning displays moderate impact (Education Endowment Foundation, 2018). That being said, the costs associated with a play intervention such as this are extremely low as early year settings already have play facilities. A few additional resources may be needed to support children’s participation in pretend play activities, but these resources tend to be minimal. 

Further research needs to be undertaken to understand how play and creativity might be leveraged to support children’s learning. An interesting avenue of research would be to explore how the equipment in the children’s learning environment supports the development of their creative thinking skills with minimal support from adults.


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